“You are repressed but you’re remarkably dressed.”
When you think of Mexico, many things come to mind (get ready to rap): Frida Kahlo and taco, Hayek and burrito.
Not to mention Santana, guacamole, margaritas, tortillas and tequila. Hmm, tequila. It makes me happy. But in a funny kind go way so does the music of Morrissey and The Smiths, and you wouldn’t expect to see either of them on the the list. Oddly though, Moz, the well-coiffed master of miserablism seems to have struck a real chord with Mexican people.
In fact, having travelled through Latin America for the first time in November last year, I was struck by how almost everybody I encountered in these beautiful Spanish speaking nations wanted to talk to me about two things – football teams and pop music from the country of my birth. What’s that coming over the hill, is it it a monster?
In fact, my Uber driver in Panama City refused to believe me when I told them I didn’t support a particular team: “But you’re English, all the English love soccer!”
Sorry, I may be gringo from giddy London but overpaid, oversexed, not so tender hooligans kicking a ball about? It says nothing to me about my life. There have been many occasions over the decades where I haven’t felt particularly English and that was certainly one of them. Those seaside towns that they forgot to bomb? Yeah, bye.
“I’ve been dreaming of a time when
To be English is not to be baneful
To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful.”
Ah, pop music! Well, how long have you got?
It was quite a humbling experience to discover how Anglophile these countries are. From Argentina to Chile, the Amazon to the Andes, they love their British bands, particularly the alternative rock or edgy, wordy pop variety celebrated as cornerstones of counter-culture: New Order, The Cure, Pet Shop Boys and most definitely The Smiths.
There’s something about Mozzer’s prickly, porky whine and failed heroism that’s struck a particular chord with Mexicans, where their lavishly devoted nation of underdogs is proud host to everything from fan conventions to fashion appropriations and multiple tribute bands in his honour.
There’s even a Mariachi take on the music, Mexrrissey.
At first glance, the association might seem baffling: songs from a place the morose Morrissey himself bewails as “silent and grey” being sung by musicians from one of the world’s most famously vibrant and colourful countries.
But actually, Moz’s ardent Mexican fanbase is a force to be reckoned with, and when you consider the drama, romance and poetic black humour inherent in The Smiths’ outsider anthems, it makes perfect sense.
Enter Mexrrissey – a glorious seven-piece band representing the crème de la crème of Mexico’s music scene, who interpret Steven Patrick’s off-kilter oeuvre entirely in Spanish, via vibrant Latin rhythms of ranchera, danzón, mambo, norteño and cha cha cha with arrangements by Calexico’s Sergio Mendoza. The whole shebang is the brainchild of DJ and record label executive Camilo Lara, who explains:
“In the ’80s and ’90s it became a statement, like many Mexicans started adopting Morrissey’s fashion and the songs and he became an icon. So that’s why we decided to do this project and try to find the connection between Mexican music – Mariachi and Mexican rhythms – and Morrissey’s music. And it has a lot in common.”
Trying to explain why Morrissey is so popular in South America, Camilo offers an interesting parallel:
“There are different layers to that question. I think that in terms of what they see, there is the melodrama that we share, that passion and that deep knowledge through simple lyrics, and Mexico is a country that enjoys soap operas and enjoys crisis in day to day life. So I guess we share that and then I guess there is a deeper connection for second generation Mexicans living in the US. We share the aesthetic, the look, and we also share the migration thing, elements in Morrissey’s lyrics that can be understood in the context of moving from Mexico to the States.”
Three years ago (and two years after I emigrated from the UK), Mexrissey came to Australia for the first time, bringing their utterly joyous translation to the Sydney Festival for a headline show at the Enmore Theatre. With its handsome palladium style façade, the Enmore is one of only two surviving art deco theatres in Sydney and the city’s oldest and longest running live theatre. Morrissey would have approved.
They begin with one of the more recent solo numbers, First of the Gang To Die, now El Primero Del Gang, a song which narrates the sad tale of Hector, a Latino from Los Angeles and one in a long line of Morrissey’s sweet and tender ruffians. Alex Escobar, the group’s trumpet player, creates lovely melodies – and his is perhaps the standout musical contribution of the evening.
Band member Chetes (a popular Mexican recording artist in his own right) plays a cherry-red Rickenbacker, in the manner of Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, but that’s as close a visual analogue as Mexrrissey get to their founding source – not counting the tongue-in-cheek projections behind them, of Morrissey morphing into Frida Kahlo, and tumbleweeds rolling through the grey streets of Manchester.
The backdrop image above shows Morrissey from 2009’s repackaged cover art of Southpaw Grammar. Eagle-eyed pop cherries will have spotted long ago it’s a cheeky tribute to the Dame’s 1976 compilation ChangesOneBowie, an album the young Steven Patrick and Steven Pafford both owned. ¡Oye Esteban!
Whether this was a coincidence or not I have no idea, but Mexrissey happened to be my first live concert since David Bowie, Moz’s hero turned “see you in court” nemesis, died less than a fortnight earlier.
But hey, Al mal tiempo, buena cara.
Either way, it was impossible not to be moved by their strange and uplifting translations that provokes reactions “ranging from laughter to jumping to wild dancing to screams and tears” (thank you, The Observer).
As for the tone, they were getting away with it all damned night – not easy when the band’s Mariachi sound is, unlike most Moz music, very danceable, but consistently they manage to release the mostly submerged dance feel of these beautiful tunes.
I begin to wonder what their version of Barbarism Begins at Home, the closest the Smiths ever got (and the only one Moz’s one-time fur-wearing friend Pete Burns felt capable of performing when he guested with the band on stage at the peak of his popularity), would sound like; a little too close for their comfort, perhaps. (Neil Tennant having famously laid claim to the Pet Shop Boys being Morrissey’s erudite disco cousins, telling Smash Hits, “We’re the Smiths you can dance to.”)
But as with much of set list, there’s a universality that shines through Mexrrissey, something that transcends the novelty value and language barriers. The lyrics have been laboriously and sensitively translated to Spanish. And the subtle addition of vibrant Latin rhythms – a touch of cha cha cha or ranchera – seemed to perfectly enrich them.
Each song, rather surprisingly, was performed reasonably similar to the original. It meant the performances steered away from gimmicky territory and, instead, challenged the music we knew so well in the most charming, captivating way.
El Boca (Bigmouth Strikes Again) got all angular and electronic, and, despite the absence of Johnny Marr, was a revelation. Panico? Fantástico.
At one point, Mozzer is being defaced with colourful, squiggly lines, transforming him into a Mexican day-of-the dead character while a mariachi trumpet soars powerfully across the theatre, turning the aching chorus of The Boy With the Thorn in the Side into a poppy, off-the-wall ditty complete with a melodica and tearing electric guitars.
El Chico de la Espina Clavada, it was now called. And it was astounding.
Notoriously difficult to cover, the iconic, hypnotic waves and tremolo guitars of How Soon is Now (El Hijo Soy) were still there. Just with blaring mariachi trumpet and slightly exotic licks added for good effect, and part of the song’s famously massive sound transferred to xylophone (no really, it works), and drummer Ricardo Najera adding suitably grandiose cymbal rolls.
The epic, echoey dolefulness of Everyday Like Sunday’s apocalyptic imagery was reflected in the funeral procession-esque brass and the washed-out, listless voice of lone female member Ceci Bastida, propelled by an offbeat, lazy ska guitar rhythm.
There were raucous, rock-heavy highlights, including a hoe-down version of Ask, that coruscating, clashing 1986 ode to shyness and nuclear war, that ended with the crowd singing along to its Spanish equivalent, Dime.
And there were moments of downtime too, such as the author’s beautiful, melancholy tribute Mexico, performed with a solo guitar and that tender, rousing trumpet – the instrument that could easily have carried this night entirely on its own.
The eccentric outfit’s utterly joyous love of Manchester’s finest was infectious, their deep respect for his catalogue obvious. It was impossible not to admire this merry band of musical gunslingers’ Latino re-imaginations.
At first it seems there will be no encore, though the audience is screaming for one. When the band does reappear, Camilo Lara claims that they don’t really have that many songs, and everyone laughs, thinking he’s joking, until they launch into a second round of the gender-swapped International Playgirl for want of another song to play. Ah, well – even Morrissey is prone to repeating himself.
Speaking of which, what does the man at the centre of the project think? Well, Lara isn’t sure – the closest contact he’s had with Morrissey was being asked to support him on a tour, which he had to refuse as the dates clashed with his own.
Despite having to turn the chance down, the Moz one still commissioned him to remix his 2009 single Something Is Squeezing My Skull, but it didn’t go down so well.
“I never heard from them for a month or so, and then after a month I got an email saying that he didn’t like my remix. I was like, ‘well, ok, fine’, but then I received another email three months later saying, ‘no, I’m terribly sorry, Morrissey does like your remix’, so that was it! I was like ‘great – that’s a good mixtape!’”
Frankly, Señor Shankly, it’s not important now that the once great man has pretty much become the flatulent pain in the arse he once sang about on The Queen is Dead. Silly old queen.
Mexrrissey: Mexico Goes Morrissey was at the Enmore Theatre, Sydney on 23 January 2016